Carmen Herrera (1915–2022)

February 15th, 2022

Cuban-born artist Carmen Herrera, who painted in obscurity for decades before seeing her vibrant hard-edge abstractions achieve global acclaim when she was eighty-nine, died February 12 at her home in New York at the age of 106. News of her death was confirmed by artist Tony Bechara, her close friend and legal representative. Coming of professional age alongside Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, whom she counted as friends, Herrera found herself pushed to the sidelines owing to her status as a Latin American woman and to her work’s being out of step with the then-fashionable work of her aforementioned compatriots. She continued to make art uninhibitedly and consistently until Bechara, a neighbor and then the chair of New York’s Museo del Barrio, introduced her to a prominent gallerist. Within a few brief years Herrera was elevated from oblivion to being lauded in the New York Times as “a key player in any history of postwar art,” her works of decades ago fetching over a million dollars at auction.

Herrera was born in 1915 in Havana, to an editor father and a journalist mother, and enjoyed a genteel upbringing, attending private school in Paris before returning home to study architecture at the University of Havana. Thwarted in this effort thanks to the turbulent atmosphere attending the country’s fraught military dictatorship, she left school, married, and moved to New York, where she studied at the Art Students League. During a stint in Paris that lasted from 1948 to 1956, she developed the style for which she would much later become renowned, characterized by abstract geometric shapes whose sharp angles were informed by mathematical logic. Writing in Artforum in 2013, Alessandra Pioselli would describe Herrera’s works, frequently rendered in stark black-and-white, as well as in hot yellows, blues, oranges, greens and pinks, as “fields traversed by interrelated forces” and marked by “measured proportional and chromatic relationships where nothing is left to chance.”

While in Paris, Herrera said in a 2016 interview with Artforum, “materials were so scarce there after World War II that I was forced to use horse blankets as canvases. I learned to use bare material as a finished product.” Herrera eventually took up wood as a second substrate, shaping bright shards who in themselves retained the spare angular lines limned in her regular canvases,  “The main thing has always been to take things out and refine,” she told Bacon. “I like things very simple. I never saw a straight line I did not like! My visual language is based on the idea of contrasts and on the juxtaposition of shapes. As for color, my feelings depend on the color. Colors are really intuitive. There is no formula. I like to juxtapose shapes and colors until they tell me to stop. Then I know I have a painting.”

By the time Herrera returned to New York, however, the large masculine canvases of AbEx artists were in vogue, and she was only able to secure spots for her work in modest group shows, enjoying just four solo shows in a nearly thirty-year span. Following her reintroduction in 2004, however, she arrived into the arms of a global audience eager for her Minimalist compositions, and her work began appearing in numerous institutional shows, with New York’s Lisson Gallery taking up representation of the artist in 2012.

The Whitney Museum of American Art staged a landmark exhibition of her work in 2016–17 to wide acclaim; the show traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, and Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsselddorf. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art gave her solo shows in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Herrera’s work is held in the collections of El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York; Tate Modern, London; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art, both in Washington, DC. Last July, the French government presented her with the Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.